Legal Rights for Middle-Class and Low-Income Families

Uploaded by whitehouse on 19.11.2010

Mr. Tribe: Good morning.
Audience Members: Good morning.
Mr. Tribe: I'm Larry Tribe, senior counselor for Access to
Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice,
and I'm honored to open today's White House meeting dedicated to
closing the justice gap for America's working families.
Justice is, quite simply, the cornerstone
of American democracy.
The most profound aspirations of our nation's founding could
not be satisfied, nor its audacious hopes realized,
without meaningful access to justice for all.
Access to justice is the tie that binds us all together --
not just those of us in this room,
but all of those across this land who take seriously
America's promise to establish justice and secure the blessings
of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
Whatever our disagreements in this time of contentious
division, we should be able to agree that justice must be
available not simply as an abstract, philosophical ideal,
but as an everyday reality; not just as a snapshot from
30,000 feet, but as lived experience on the ground.
And though the economic winds may blow hot or cold,
strong or weak, the commitment to hold the compass of justice
true must set our course.
In asking me to lead the Access to Justice Initiative
in the Justice Department, the president and the attorney
general issued a challenge that I couldn't resist: to ensure
that the people's charter I spent decades studying truly
applies to all of us, including many of the people you'll meet
today, people our new office has met around the country --
homeowners, renters, veterans; victims of domestic violence;
juveniles pleading guilty without any legal advice;
people with limited resources and pressing legal needs;
people for whom access to justice means the difference
between keeping or losing custody of a child,
between living in a safe and secure home and living on the
street or in constant fear of violence.
When the president and vice president charged the Justice
Department with the mission of making genuine justice,
not as legal abstraction but as a living, breathing reality,
more meaningfully available to all in a time of economic
distress, I realized something that I'm sure all of our
dedicated justice-seeking partners in this room,
from the badly underfunded and unduly restricted Legal Services
Corporation to the American Bar Association and its affiliates,
have learned through experience: that we need to form innovative
community-based partnerships cutting across ideological
divides, both within government and between government and the
nonprofit and private sectors, to make the whole greater than
the sum of its parts.
The Access to Justice Initiative has accepted that charge,
and in conjunction with the Commerce Department this
September, we helped facilitate the deployment of broadband
technology in Washington and in North Carolina to make vital
resources and services, including legal services,
accessible to those otherwise cut off by social and economic
circumstances, physical remoteness or both.
In a similar vein, we are working with Vice President
Biden's office and the Office on Violence Against Women to forge
partnerships between law school clinics,
legal services providers, and law firms in New Orleans
and Baltimore that will dedicate the time of young associates to
assisting domestic violence victims.
Those efforts attack a plague that infects every community in
our nation, a plague this vice president, I think,
should be praised for pursuing ever since he drafted the
Violence Against Women Act a decade and a half ago.
Partnerships of this sort can significantly enlarge the pool
of licensed attorneys who assist not just the destitute,
but the working poor and the struggling middle class,
people to whom the loss of just one paycheck can mean
the difference between stability and crisis.
The work goes on, and yet the challenge continues.
The gap in justice remains a chasm,
so it's possible to look across the landscape of America and
despair, to see the crisis in indigent defense and civil-legal
assistance as the canary in the coal mine exposing deep fissures
in our entire legal system, to focus on the shocking magnitude
of the justice gap that puts both criminal and civil justice
beyond the reach of nearly all but the most privileged among
us; to despair that the Constitution's promise
of equal justice under law, a promise emblazoned in marble
on our Supreme Court and on courthouses across the land, is,
in Justice Jackson's deathless phrase,
"a promise to the ear to be broken to the hope,
like a munificent bequest in a pauper's will";
to despair that justice is a hollow hope.
But despair defeats possibility.
We are, if nothing else, a land of endless possibility,
a land that has transcended its morally flawed beginnings
through a succession of profound revolutions,
some of them inscribed in blood; a land whose message to the
world is a message of unbounded and audacious aspiration.
That message has drawn together the people in this gathering,
from the private bar leaders to the dedicated public servants
who have partnered with them, from the scholars and experts
in the complex and varied areas of law involved to so-called
ordinary people who have demonstrated extraordinary
perseverance in the face of daunting odds.
And that is the message I hope all of you will draw from
today's event, an event through which the vice president and his
Middle Class Task Force, in partnership with the Access
to Justice Initiative, the Department of Veterans Affairs,
the Labor Department and the Department of Housing and Urban
Development, will announce a number of hopeful new
collaborations all designed to help bring the fair and equal
opportunity that our tradition promises to those who struggle
every day to make ends meet.
One promising option involves creating a referral system for
wage earners to more easily find competent lawyers who
can vindicate their rights as workers.
For veterans, who have often served in multiple deployments
and have put their lives on the line for their country,
we will highlight new and practical ways to redeem the
solemn promises our country has made to them and their families.
And we'll look at ways to create effective forums where
homeowners can meet with lenders to explore mutually beneficial
solutions that call for the help of professionals who might not
have law degrees but who have the training and the
understanding to help homeowners rework loans in ways that make
mutual economic sense.
Now, we have no illusion that these collaborations will alone
transform our national landscape into one of
equal justice under law.
The task we confront together is much too large for that to
be a realistic expectation.
It took a village to make even this event a reality,
and we will have much village-building to do
across this country if we are to make lasting progress.
But a journey of a thousand miles must
begin with a single step.
And the steps we announce here today will make a significant
difference in the lives of many who struggle to lead decent and
healthy lives.
And as the progress we make teaches us more about what works
and what doesn't, about when just results can at the same
time be economic and cost-saving results,
we'll be moving our nation closer toward what our founders
knew we could become: that city on a hill that can inspire and,
in the end, can transform the entire globe.
At this point, ladies and gentlemen,
it's my great privilege and honor to turn the podium over
to the man whose leadership has made this extraordinary
gathering and much else in our lives possible: the great vice
president of the United States and my very good friend,
Joe Biden.
Vice President Biden: Thank you very much. Thank you, folks.
Please, please sit down.
Let me -- let me start off by saying it's so good to see you,
Maxine, Representative Maxine Waters, who is here today;
and John Conyers, who may be coming, but my good friend John.
And Representative Bob Filner is here,
as well as Representative-elect, former officeholder who now has
jumped into the cauldron as our new congressman,
David Cicilline of Rhode Island.
And my good friend Chief Justice Broderick from the state of New
Hampshire, an old, close personal friend.
And a person who is not a lawyer,
but I would -- I cannot go without acknowledging her
presence here, one of my closest friends, Mary Carey Foley.
Mary, are you down here to straighten him out a little bit?
Keep him in line?
Ms. Foley: (inaudible) -- and you.
Vice President Biden: Well, that's good. And me. See that?
And me.
You can tell she's a good friend, Maxine.
That's what Maxine's been trying to do for years with me.
She's been working hard on me.
Speaker: (inaudible)
Vice President Biden: It's great to see you all, to have such a
distinguished group here.
Folks, before I begin, let me -- I often get asked, you know,
do I -- in all the interviews over the years,
do I have any regrets?
And one of the regrets: my -- oh,
my -- my Harvard Law School friends like Barack ask me:
Do I regret not going to Harvard?
I say: No, I don't regret not going to Harvard,
because quite frankly -- Law School -- I received my law
degree from Syracuse University, and I got the most -- the best
of both worlds.
I got more Larry Tribe than you got at Harvard,
and I got a degree from Syracuse.
I just want to tell you something,
and it's not part of the script here, but it warrants saying.
Larry Tribe is -- will go down in history as one of the two
or three most profound and thoughtful commentators on
American constitutional law in the entire 20th century.
This is a guy who is -- has a prodigious mind, has made more,
more -- has influenced more legal minds who are now
conducting on both left and right the business of the nation
in the courts and in every other arena than about any man I know.
And since this job, he's heading back to Harvard as a professor,
and he's -- we were able to steal him for this long --
for next semester, and he will no longer be in this job,
I want to publicly acknowledge the indebtedness I feel and the
president feels to Professor Larry Tribe,
one of the great minds --
I have one other regret --
-- that he's not on the Supreme Court of the United States of
America for the last 20 years.
But that's another question.
That's another time.
Folks, one of the principles of American government,
going all the way back to John Adams,
the first man to hold my job, is that trite expression that
sounds today -- we use it so often -- that America
is a nation of laws.
Our nation is a nation where every American,
regardless of their age, their race, their sex,
their income is, by law, treated the exact same or
should be treated the exact same in the eyes of the law.
That, in a nutshell, is the fundamental ideal of our
democracy, of our democracy.
And it -- but it's not enough.
As Professor Tribe has pointed out,
it's not enough to say that everyone has the same legal
rights to do -- as saying that everyone actually has
equal rights to justice.
There's a disconnect here sometimes,
as Professor Tribe pointed out.
So in order to protect these rights,
we have to ensure that every American has real and meaningful
access to justice.
And sadly, as I've observed over my 36 years in the United States
Senate, we are still struggling.
We're still struggling to make that a reality.
We're not just talking about a lack of access
for poor folks here.
It's becoming -- and has been, I would argue,
for the last 25 years -- an increasing problem
for hardworking middle-class Americans to receive access
to justice, particularly civil justice.
Middle-class Americans are struggling to make end meet
-- ends meet, and they have real legal issues, but increasingly,
they can't afford to deal with those legal issues in a way that
gets them the full benefit of the law.
The statistics are staggering.
In many states, well over half of the civil cases -- half of
the civil cases have at least one party with no legal
representation: over half the civil cases.
And as I said, this problem isn't new.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee for 17 years,
as ranking member, we constantly tried to chip
away at that dilemma.
You know, an old judge famously remarked,
"Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel."
Well, the fact of the matter is, it's true,
and all of you in this room, better than most Americans,
know that to be the case.
But the economic crisis has only made the problem worse,
with 60 percent of the judges in the United States reporting that
they had more unrepresented litigants last year than the
year before.
The complexity of the legal problems facing many families
-- all of the paperwork, all the complicated legal rules --
it requires trained professionals.
And Americans, average Americans who can't afford trained
professionals, simply aren't getting a fair
shake in the system.
And this administration -- and the reason why the president
asked Professor Tribe to do this,
this administration is dedicated to doing something about it.
This administration really does understand the magnitude
of the problem.
And as Larry said, we're not going to change it overnight,
but we are determined; we are determined to continue to chip
away at this inequity.
We know the difference it makes when any family facing a life-
altering circumstance has a legal advocate at their side.
So to tackle these challenges head-on, the president created,
as you already know, the new Access to Justice Initiative,
led by Professor Tribe.
Larry -- the president was absolutely certain in picking
Larry that he was selecting the nation's most -- one of the
nation's most respected law professors -- an appellate
advocate, someone who's dedicated his entire life
to studying and defending the Constitution -- who's now tasked
with making this lofty promise to establish
justice an on-the-ground reality for every American.
And thanks to the hard work of Larry and his remarkable team
at the Justice Department -- Department of Justice --
along with the partners throughout the government,
and many of you representing the entire legal community,
I'm proud to be able to announce the concrete steps that we're
taking toward the goal, that goal of equal access
to justice in three areas: protecting workers' rights,
helping veterans cope with legal challenges, and promoting
commonsense solutions with regard to foreclosures.
Now, I'm going to talk very little about each of these.
But I do want to mention them, and you'll hear more during the
panel discussions later today.
First, we're taking steps to help workers stand up for their
rights in the workplace.
And by the way, when, in fact, the workplace is so constricted
and constrained and unemployment is so high,
there is even a greater reluctance on the part
of workers to seek and accommodate -- and to
have their rights accommodated.
Over many decades, we've put in place critical protections for
workers, one that -- ones that everyone knows about,
and some they don't know about, like minimum wage and overtime
laws, which everybody knows about.
But every year, tens of thousands of workers file
complaints with the Department of Labor because they have been
denied those basic rights that are guaranteed to them in law.
The Department of Labor does an incredible job working to deal
with these violations or allegations of violations,
investigating nearly 30,000 cases every year,
and resolving the vast majority of them.
Unfortunately, because of the lack of resources at
the department, there are still thousands of cases
it can't pursue.
And the workers filing these claims typically don't know
where else to go, don't know where else to turn for help.
They know they haven't been treated fairly,
but they don't know how to go about it.
I used to have a friend who was a great basketball player,
went to Providence College.
God love him, he's passed away.
And he used to say: You know, you've got to know how to know.
You've got to know how to know.
They know their rights have been violated, but they don't know;
they don't know how to navigate the system to
get them redressed.
And thanks to a new collaboration between
the Department of Labor and the American Bar Association,
workers whose cases can't be pursued are going to be provided
with a new toll-free number that links them to an attorney
referral service so that if you are wrongly denied overtime pay
or paid less than the minimum wage, you can call this number.
And if there's a participating attorney in your area -- and
that's what the Bar Association -- that's what they're going to
work on, to make sure there is a participating attorney in every
area -- you're going to be able to be put in touch with a lawyer
who can help you with your case and with your claim,
and in a way that's affordable.
Most of it -- and the average person will say,
well, what do you mean by affordable?
Most of all of this will be contingency or it's
on the back end.
So they're going to be in a position where the folks doesn't
have to -- they don't have to reach into pocket and come out
of pocket money -- out of pocket with the money to get the case
started, which many are not in a position to be able to do.
And that can make a real difference.
Just ask Mitchell, who you'll here from later today.
He tried on his own to get his employer to give him
the overtime he was due.
But he was having a lot of trouble doing it on his own.
As soon as he got a lawyer, though,
he started making progress and was able to quickly
settle the case.
The second thing we're doing here is we're taking steps to
connect our veterans with the legal help they need,
deserve and they are entitled to.
These veterans have made a sacrifice like -- unlike
anyone else in the country.
Right now, by the way, we've had 2 million forces, combat forces,
cycle through both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many of them are -- have come back with significant
difficulties they're facing.
This nation owes them not only a huge debt of gratitude,
it owes them more.
Colleagues in the Congress heard me say this.
We have a lot of obligations, but we only have one truly
sacred obligation, and that's to prepare those who we send,
give them everything they need to do their job,
and when they come home, meet their legitimate needs.
And so there's no more basic need that you'd think would be
automatic than making sure they have access to their -- what
they're legally entitled to.
Although the Department of Veterans Affairs provides
veterans the treatment, counseling and benefits,
they often face legal challenges alone and
without any strong advocate.
You'll hear from David, who was seriously injured while he was
serving in the United States Army.
Thankfully, he recovered and worked full time for 15 years
until pain from his Army injury forced him to retire.
The VA did its job: It provided him with all the benefits he had
earned under the various pieces of legislation --
and recommended, though, that he go out and seek disability
-- Social Security disability.
He tried unsuccessfully to do so on his own for 10 years.
Finally, with the help of a legal -- a legal advocate,
he was finally able to organize all the documentation he needed
and get the benefits for which he was -- to which
he was entitled.
So I'm happy to announce that a new collaboration that will help
veterans get their legal help they need is in the works.
In the communities across the country,
VA vet centers already provide mental-health and
other counseling services to combat veterans.
Well, we're now connecting more than 50 of these vet centers
with the Legal Services Corporation networks of the
local legal aid offices, which provide free legal advice to
folks who can't afford to hire a lawyer to pursue
what they're entitled to.
So when veterans come to the vet centers and they need legal
help, their staffs will now know exactly where to pursue them.
And by the way, I know this from the Violence Against Women Act
and all the work I've done over the years: You literally have to
connect a person with a person.
When I used to do this work as a United States senator and have
a staff devoted to nothing but dealing with these needs
-- as my friends in Congress can tell you,
literally thousands of them over the years -- one thing
I'd instruct my staff to do: Don't give them a phone number.
Don't give them a phone number.
You work for them.
You pick up the phone, you call the agency for which
you're being referred.
You get a name.
You tell them that "Mary Smith," your constituent,
is going to come and see them, and you expect their problem
to be resolved.
Well, not everyone can get to the United States senator or the
United States congressperson, which they do a lot of.
But when you have legal counsel -- you have legal counsel --
this is the frightening prospect for people.
We all are -- in this room, have legal backgrounds and
professional backgrounds, so it's no big deal for us to think
to pick up the phone and call and demand we have access to the
-- what we're entitled to.
But it is a frightening prospect for a lot of people.
They don't know how to go about it.
But once you have someone -- in this case,
Legal Services Corporation -- launching a new website
specifically for veterans and their families that's going
to explain how to find this legal help,
with information about everything from estate
planning to the GI Bill, things will change.
At least that is our expectation.
And if it doesn't, we're going to find out why it
hasn't changed.
And the third thing we're talking about here is we're
taking steps to strengthen foreclosure mediation.
Look, coming from a family where,
when there was a recession, you knew at dinner your uncles or
aunts or your father or mother or your -- their friends sitting
around the dining room table, that one of them was likely
to lose their job.
A lot of us never have to worry -- we've never had to worry in
our life about losing a job, and consequently never had
to worry about losing the house.
It is the most frightening prospect any man or woman
can face in trying to provide for their family.
And through no fault of their own,
there are millions of people whose mortgages,
as -- you all know the expression: are underwater.
They paid their mortgages every single day -- I mean,
every single month, never fell behind,
but because of two sub prime mortgages that were -- you know,
around the block that went under,
all of a sudden they found their houses worth 20 percent less
than it was before they bought their house.
All of a sudden, they find they owe more on their mortgage than
their house is worth, and they don't know what to do.
They don't know what to do.
They're not mortgage bankers.
They're not people who -- even though they're well educated
and knowledgeable, this is not an area they're --
they feel comfortable in.
But they're losing their home.
In many cases, there are alternatives to foreclosures
that benefit not only the homeowner but the lender,
would benefit the lender as well.
But all too often, these alternatives are not just
overlooked; they're unknown to the person being foreclosed on.
Well, foreclosure-mediation programs can help these
homeowners find alternatives.
We're providing them with an opportunity to meet face to face
with a lender and discuss your options under the supervision of
a neutral third-party mediator.
And by the way, the reason for a neutral third-party mediator is
not just to be fair and mediate, but is also able to translate
into English or into a language that's understood,
in everyday language, what it is they should be asking for,
what it is the options are available to them.
Back to my old friend Pete.
You've got to know how to know.
You've got to know what to ask for.
That's what's happened with -- to Richard and Phyllis,
who are also here today.
When Richard lost his job, they were having trouble making the
payments on their home.
But because of Cuyahoga County in Ohio provided them access to
counseling and mediation, they were able to sit down with a
lender, with a knowledgeable person with them,
and negotiate a modification of their mortgage that benefited
the lender as well as allowed them to stay in their home.
And the entire community benefited
as a consequence of it.
So today, the Housing Department,
the Housing -- Housing and Urban Development is joining with
Access to Justice Initiative to issue a report on mediation
strategies that are working, and go out and urge -- sell this to
communities like Cuyahoga County has,
to communities across the country to take a close look at
-- we can't dictate them -- but have them take a close look at
these strategies so they can learn from them and
maybe replicate them.
That's one of the things we can do at a federal level.
And again, if you're able to mediate these mortgages,
it not only helps the homeowner and the lender.
It helps the entire community.
There's one less house going under and one less click on the
devaluation of property in a whole block.
So look, these little things mean a lot.
They make a big difference.
And the Department of Housing and Urban Development and
NeighborWorks, which is an organization,
the nation's largest funder of foreclosure-counseling services,
will be providing new training for housing counselors,
homeowners, attorneys and mediators that are going to
be -- help make this mediation program much more effective.
And I can't think of any other more urgent need in terms of
the economy now than that.
Look, we're not naive, as Professor Tribe pointed out.
We know the steps we're taking now to solve this problem is
-- are helpful.
But we're not going to solve this overnight.
There's a long, long way to go.
And these -- these steps certainly don't represent the
administration's full response to the many challenges relating
to the foreclosure mess or the other things that
I've mentioned.
But these steps we're taking today do what the Middle-Class
Task Force was set up to do when the president asked me
to head up this force.
He said, go out and find those things,
force every department in the federal government to find
those things they could do, they could change, they could alter,
they could emphasize, that would actually have an impact on how
middle-class people really live their lives.
How do you take pressure off the middle class that
has been so burdened?
You know, Alexander Hamilton said once that the first duty
of society is justice.
We throw that word around a lot, "justice."
But if you don't have access to it,
if you don't know how it works, if you don't know how to take
advantage of what you're entitled to,
that other great phrase, you know,
in a different context it was about crime,
but justice delayed is justice denied.
You know, it matters to people.
And they don't know.
And, by the way, most people are like my dad was.
My dad is a guy who never wanted to ask for anything.
My dad always said, he didn't expect government to solve his
problem, but he expected at least for them -- the government
to understand his problem.
This is about understanding a basic part of human nature,
where people are working 10, 12 hours a day just to put meat
and potatoes on the table or put food on the table.
This is not something -- and they're self-conscious
about asking.
People don't want to let you know that they don't know.
And so, folks, you know, our job is to fulfill this solemn duty
of making sure people have access to justice.
And that's what I was tasked with;
that's what Larry Tribe was tasked with and is doing.
And together we're working to get middle-class Americans and
those who aspire to middle class what they so need and
so deserve: a system of justice that works for them
and not against them, that's accommodating,
that is welcoming, instead of throwing up barriers or
inadvertently throwing up -- you know that expression we
use in trade, "non-tariff trade barriers," you know?
Well, there's a lot of essentially non-tariff trade
barriers in the legal system, because people don't even know
sometimes how to navigate -- navigate what they know
they need to get done.
And so that's why I think we owe such a debt of gratitude to
Larry and his organization that was set up under his leadership,
and that's why the president and I owe such a debt of gratitude
to all of you that are sitting here today.
Now, I know you're going to have panels here.
I know you're going to discuss a number of these things in
much more detail.
But I just wanted to open up by telling you that a lot of you
have done significant things in your life,
and many of you may think, well, wait, you know,
this is not going to, you know, relight the whole world here,
so is this that important?
It's one family at a time.
It's one person at a time.
It's one veteran at a time.
It's one foreclosure at a time.
If we do what we're saying here, if we're able to implement this,
you're going to affect the lives of tens of thousands
and millions of people in ways that are consequential.
Because a lot of them are lost right now.
A lot of them are lost right now.
And the pressure is building on them economically.
And giving them this access is, as someone once said,
a big deal.
Thank God my mother wasn't around.
So Larry, Professor Tribe, thank you for your great work.
Thank all of you for being here today.
And now I'd like to turn the podium back to Larry for you
to get down into the real work.
But on behalf of the president -- and by the way,
I was just about to do that.
You see that big guy from South Carolina, Bobby?
He just handed me a note, he said, Bobby Scott's here.
The first guy I looked at was Bobby,
and because I was -- I nodded at him while -- Congressman Scott,
I nodded to him while Larry was speaking,
and I guess subconsciously thought by that I had
already introduced you.
But Bobby Scott and I have been in the vineyards for a long
time, on the Judiciary Committee in the House and the Senate.
You're a great champion for all we're talking about here,
Bobby. Thank you very much for being here.
And the -- and is -- is there anything else I forgot?
No, I don't think there's anything else I forgot,
except to turn it back to Larry Tribe.
And again, I was talking to the president earlier today,
thank you on behalf of the president of the United
States as well.
This is something he feels passionately about,
so thank you for what you're doing.
Mr. Tribe: Now you know why I think he's such a great vice president.
The workers' rights panel I think ought to assemble.
We're turning now to our program,
and at a time when a single paycheck can determine whether
a middle-class worker can make ends meet,
we're turning first to the issue of workers' rights.
"A fair day's pay for a fair day's work" was the call of
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt when the Fair
Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938.
And yet today, more than 70 years later,
workers in America have hundreds of millions,
maybe billions of dollars, stolen from them,
literally stolen, when they don't get the wages to which
they're legally entitled: Maybe they don't get the minimum wage;
maybe they don't get their overtime pay or their family
medical leave; maybe they're treated as independent
contractors, when they should be receiving the benefits of
regular employees.
In perilous economic times, workers fear losing their
jobs if they ask about the wages they're owed.
That's a point the vice president underscored.
And they often don't know how to find a lawyer to help them out.
They don't know how to know.
And so they're robbed of the money their hard work merits.
In the words of that Woody Guthrie song: Some rob you
with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.
Today, the U.S. Department of Labor and the American Bar
Association announced an unprecedented collaboration
to help workers obtain legal redress for their minimum-wage,
overtime and family medical-leave claims.
Workers whose complaints won't be resolved by the Department of
Labor will be given information about any investigation that's
been done on their case, and be informed about a new,
toll-free number provided by the ABA that'll connect them with
local qualified attorneys who can help in an affordable way.
With us today to announce this partnership are the U.S.
secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis; the president-elect of the ABA,
William Robinson III; and joining them will be Mitchell
Green, a worker who didn't receive the overtime pay
to which he was entitled until he got legal help.
He knows what difference access to an attorney can make.
Also joining us is Catherine Ruckelshaus,
legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project,
which advances labor standards for all workers.
I also want to recognize in our audience representatives of many
bar associations across the country who've linked arms to
bring this collaboration to life and bring justice to workers;
and the many representatives of workers centers,
unions and advocacy groups who labor every day to try to ensure
that workers get that fair day's pay for a fair day's work.
And now we will hear from Madame Secretary.
Secretary Solis: Thank you. Thank you, Professor Tribe, for convening us and the
work that you do with Access to Justice and helping to bring us
all together in this partnership that we're beginning today.
With your help, today we're ensuring more workers have
access to justice.
And I want to personally thank our outstanding vice president,
Joe Biden, for his leadership and his commitment to American
workers and their families.
He, as you know, is our champion.
And I would also like to thank Attorney General Eric Holder for
his commitment to protecting and enforcing our nation's laws and
for his dedication to working families.
Thank you, William T. Robinson, president-elect of the American
Bar Association.
State -- representing various state and local attorneys and
referral providers, our agency, DOL,
is so excited and pleased to be working with you,
and for your -- with your colleagues that are here
with us today.
I know many of them traveled very far to be here,
and I appreciate that.
Cathy Ruckelshaus with NELP, I want to also thank you,
and for all the advocates who have joined us today,
and for your tireless efforts in advocating for workers' rights.
And I also want to recognize and thank my solicitor at the
Department of Labor, Patricia Smith, who is here,
and also I want to recognize Nancy Leppink,
the deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division,
for their tireless work to make today possible for us.
And finally I want to thank Mitchell Green for his coming
and sharing his story with us today.
He has stood up for himself but he's also helped -- stood up for
many other workers, to set an example.
So we will hear more from him later.
Workers across this country continue to struggle to obtain
basic employment protections under our nation's minimum
wage and overtime laws.
And during difficult economic times,
every dollar that workers are entitled to is even more important.
Helping these workers is one of the highest priorities that we
have at the Department of Labor, and since I've taken office,
the department has collected more than $300 million in back
wages for more than 385,000 workers.
I have hired an additional 300 new wage and hour investigators
to ensure that we can promptly respond to complaints and can
undertake more targeted enforcement.
And I have launched -- and I am very proud of this program --
a national public awareness campaign.
We call it We Can Help; in Spanish,
Podemos Ayudar -- to connect America's most vulnerable
workers with the broad array of services that are provided by my
department, to ensure they receive the wages they've
worked so hard to earn.
We're making progress.
After years of neglect at the Department of Labor,
we are back in the enforcement business.
But even these increases just take us back to 2001 levels.
Thankfully, there are lawyers and advocates in this room today
and around the country who stepped up in the years when
workers could not turn to the Department of Labor,
and who continue now to work with us in this critical effort.
In a typical year, over 35,000 workers contact the Wage and
Hour Division for help.
That includes 25,000 who need assistance with their minimum
wage, overtime or family medical-leave claims.
The Wage and Hour Division is able to help the vast majority
of these workers recover denied wages or lost jobs through
conciliation, settlement or with the help of the solicitor
of labor litigation.
But unfortunately, every year, there are thousands upon
thousands of workers whose claims we cannot resolve
because of limited capacity.
And truthfully we know there are many more workers who need to be
calling the Department of Labor.
So this is only a fraction of the need.
We recognize we cannot remedy every violation of the Fair
Labor Standards Act and the Family Medical Leave Act.
That is why Congress provided workers with their own private
right of action under these laws.
In the past, the Wage and Hour Division would inform workers
that even though they may have valid claims under FLSA or FMLA,
it was declining to pursue their claims further because they did
not have the capacity to assist them.
Attempting to exercise their rights on their own or finding
an attorney with the necessary experience and subject matter
expertise to represent them are significant and difficult
obstacles for any worker looking to obtain justice.
That is why today's announcement is so
critical for American workers.
Thanks to our new collaboration between the Wage and Hour
Division and the American Bar Association Standing Committee
on Lawyer Referral and Information Service,
we will now be able to connect these workers to a local
referral service that will provide workers with access
to attorneys who may be able to help them.
Beginning on December the 13th, when an FSLA and FMLA
complainant is informed that the Wage and Hour Division is
declining to pursue their complaint,
they will also be given a toll-free number to contact the
newly created, ABA-approved attorney referral system.
A worker will be able to call and connect with an ABA-approved
attorney referral provider in his or her area and gain
assistance, if he or she chooses,
in retaining a qualified private-sector attorney.
This phone system will be available -- and I'm
very proud to say this -- both in English and Spanish.
In addition, when Wage and Hour Division has conducted an
investigation, the complainant will now be provided information
about violations at issue and back wages owed.
This information will be given to the complainants in the same
letter informing them that the Wage and Hour Division will not
be pursuing further action, which will be very useful
for attorneys who take on these cases.
The Wage and Hour Division has also developed a special process
for complainants and representing attorneys
to quickly obtain certain relevant case information
and documents when available.
It is with these types of partnerships that we will be
able to provide workers and their families with the
protections they need to secure their wages.
Ensuring that workers in this country are paid for their hard
work is what the Department of Labor is doing every single day.
You know I will not rest until we ensure every worker gets
their protections he or she deserves.
To workers, we can say: We can help.
To you, I say: We need your help.
It's a partnership like this that shows us,
by using creative solutions to work together,
we can expand our capacity to help all workers,
especially vulnerable workers.
I thank you all for what you are representing here today,
and I look forward to working with all of you.
Thank you very much.
Mr. Robinson: Thank you, Madame Secretary.
Professor Tribe, fellow panelists and honored guests,
this is an exciting day for the American Bar Association.
As has been said so eloquently here this morning,
we are at the crossroads of partnership and access
to justice.
What an exciting day: a day of commitment,
a day of celebration.
The secretary, Professor Tribe, emphasize how -- emphasized so
well how partnership is the -- is the key to the success
that we are going to achieve here today.
But partnership, to be successful, requires leadership.
And we at the American Bar Association -- our president,
Steve Zack, who's on the rule -- on the road for the rule of law
today; I, in his stead, as the president-elect;
and our nearly 400,000 members -- want to pay our respect and
appreciation to the president, the vice-president,
Professor Tribe and the Department of Justice,
and the secretary and the Department of Labor,
for their leadership that assures that this partnership
will be successful and will increase access to justice.
One of the strengths of the American Bar Association,
which counts among its core values access to justice,
without which the rule of law is meaningless -- one of our
core strengths is our ability to convene,
to bring together lawyers from throughout this country to serve
the American public in an organized, coordinated way.
I want to assure you that we will again demonstrate our
ability to do this and to make progress in this innovative,
creative and dedicated way.
I want to especially recognize today the representatives that
we have here from bar associations across this
country, who are stepping up to assure the success of today's
announced initiative.
We have representatives from the bar associations here today of
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Milwaukee,
Columbus, Atlanta, Tampa, Philadelphia, New York City and,
I'm happy to say, my home state of Kentucky.
We are proud to be here.
We, as lawyers, are privileged to be here.
And we thank you for this opportunity to partner with you.
Thank you very much.
Mr. Tribe: Thank you, Bill. Mitchell.
Mr. Green: First, I'd like to give honor to my lord and savior,
Jesus Christ, from whom all of my blessings flow.
Hello. My name is Mitchell Green.
I'm one of America's workers.
I've worked for hourly wages since the age of 15,
starting in the fast-food industry as a teen,
and on to the banking industry on Wall Street as an adult.
I chose to leave the security of a safe paycheck and health
care to pursue my passion as a professional actor.
Early in that transition, I had to work many survival jobs;
at times, living paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet.
One of my survival jobs was as a loss-prevention officer.
And I can tell you that the playing field is not level,
that the so-called justice gap is deep, wide and cavernous,
and in many cases, insurmountable for
the American worker, who are just trying to get their fair
share in the marketplace.
And what I mean by fair share is payment for hourly living wage
for all hours worked, and most importantly for my story,
getting overtime pay for overtime work.
As a loss-prevention officer working long hours in one of
America's largest and most successful retail chains,
Abercrombie and Fitch, I and other Abercrombie workers,
in their flagship store, were denied payment of
our overtime hours.
When I inquired about the lack of overtime pay in my checks,
I was informed incorrectly by my supervisor that since I received
a salary, I did not qualify for overtime.
I knew instantly this was wrong, but I had to choose between
getting fair wages and getting no wages.
It was understood that complainers
were soon unemployed.
I was stonewalled in my efforts to receive what I was due.
But because of my faith in God, I fear no man or
goliath retail chain.
I filed a claim in small-claims court
to retrieve my back overtime pay.
I was concerned that even if I won,
my coworkers would still be mistreated and cheated
out of money.
Fortunately I had a friend who was an attorney at Woodley and
McGillivary, one of the top-five FLSA firms in America.
Within days of contacting them, Greg McGillivary and attorneys
from his firm came to New York City,
met with my colleagues and I, and interviewed us about our job
duties, and quickly confirmed my belief that as loss-prevention
officers, we did not fall into any exemptions from
overtime laws of America.
I'm sorry. I'm talking fast. I'm going to slow down.
Speaker: You're doing good.
Mr. Green: (inaudible) In America, the most basic fundamental fair
labor standard is that when you work, we get paid, and when we
work overtime, we're entitled to get paid a
premium for working long hours.
It's that simple.
Apparently, however, employers large and small all over
America, all over this country, violate this basic principle.
They increase the justice gap in America by working employees
long hours and denying them their due wages.
Unfortunately, the average American doesn't have access
to a prestigious law firm, like I did.
Within days of hiring private counsel,
a lawsuit was filed on my behalf and on behalf of Abercrombie
workers similarly situated to me.
Within days of filing suit, a settlement was negotiated.
With my and other employees' approval,
we received a check for our damages soon thereafter.
Importantly, once our -- once our lawyers checked the employer
on their blatant wage violation, the employer did the right thing
and not only made the plaintiffs in the lawsuit whole,
but also its pay -- they changed its pay practices -- I just
wrote this, like, 3:00 in the morning.
I kid you not.
I was up till 3:00 in the morning.
I don't know this, okay?
I'm sorry.
I wish I had more time to memorize it, but, you know,
I was reading this on the way over here.
Employers did the right thing and not only made the plaintiffs
in the lawsuit whole, but also changed its pay practices so
that in the future its loss-prevention officers
would be paid properly for overtime hours under the FLSA.
I just want to say also, before I close,
that when I was working there, while I was pursuing justice,
I was taunted and ridiculed by management at Abercrombie.
I was mocked.
They conspired together to ask me every day,
"How is your acting career coming?"
You know, every day I would come in and they would all stop
me and say, "How your acting career coming?"
It was their joke.
And I ignored it, but I just want to say for them,
in case they're looking, that Abercrombie was -- this was
five years ago -- that was the last job that I ever needed.
I've been a professional actor working only acting
jobs since then.
(laughter and applause)
And many of you have seen me and not realized it, so.
And I want to give -- I want to give credit to God for that,
because the Bible says he will supply my every need according
to his riches and glory.
And I haven't had a need since I gave -- since I've given my
total life to him.
In closing, I would like to thank Vice President Biden,
Secretary Solis, Attorney General Holder and senior
counsel for Access to Justice Laurence Tribe for allowing me
tell my story, for their efforts to close the justice gap that
exists for American workers.
Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you.
Mr. Tribe: I think if the acting career doesn't peak,
you might consider a writing career as well.
Ms. Ruckelshaus: Hi. I'm Cathy Ruckelshaus, and I'm from the National
Employment Law Project.
We're a national nonprofit based in New York,
and we work with low-income workers and the unemployed.
We also work with a range of advocates working on justice
-- wage justice issues: state departments of labor, academics,
workers, unions and other workers centers,
who are seeing every day workers like Mr. Green,
who aren't paid properly.
So why is this program significant to the vast
number of workers who aren't being paid?
First is that there are high, high number of violations of
our nation's core workplace standards.
NELP did a three-city survey of low-wage workers that was issued
last year that found staggering numbers of underpaid workers.
Twenty-six percent of the workers surveyed had not
been paid the minimum wage the previous week,
and 76 percent had not been paid overtime the previous week.
That's bad for workers and their families.
This survey showed that $56.4 million a week weren't paid
to these workers just in those three cities.
That's also bad for law-abiding employers,
who can't compete when they're underbid by employers who cheat
their workers.
And it's bad for the economy because wages aren't circulating
in the economy, payroll taxes aren't being paid,
and there's less consumer spending generally and money
just isn't circulating.
And it also means that, unfortunately,
we have a culture of noncompliance in what are
supposed to be our growth industries -- the service
industries, like the industry where Mr. Green worked.
It's also including health care, retail, construction,
janitorial, and all other service sectors where the
wages are low.
So how can we fix this?
This program brings together two, and potentially all four,
of the primary players in the wage justice-enforcement scheme.
The four players are the United States Department of Labor,
where Secretary Solis and her Secretary of Labor Patricia
Smith, and the Wage and Hour Division chief, Nancy Leppink,
have been turning the Titanic around to get wage justice back
in the forefront of our country.
It is the key enforcer of our bedrock employment law
-- wage laws.
And it enforces all of them with approximately
1,200 investigators across the country.
This -- these investigators are trying and are doing a good job
of protecting approximately 87.7 million covered workers.
The second pillar of our enforcement are the state DOLs.
And there are state departments of labor.
They're another important player.
And the exciting thing is that a lot of the state departments of
labor are looking to this referral program and will
perhaps replicate it in the states.
That could then leverage a wonderful model in the states.
But state enforcement only has about a thousand enforcement
across the -- our nation.
Again, it's not enough.
The private bar, which Mr. Robinson is excited to say
is a partner in this, has become a critical partner and a check
on the culture of lawlessness.
The private bar has developed an important expertise and has
helped to keep the finger in the dike against the
wage theft onslaught.
And this includes private attorneys,
legal-services attorneys and union attorneys who have really
stepped up and become real experts in wage justice and
wage-and-hour laws and have done important cases to send
a message to employers.
And the final piece is the private worksite monitoring
that labor unions and worker centers are doing from inside
the workplaces where they are active and organizing.
They are helping to enforce our nation's wage-and-hour laws.
They don't have enough capacity, either, to do this.
So the main message about these four enforcers is that none of
us can do this alone.
We need all four players firing on all pistons.
And this project brings together two of them in a strong and
strategic collaboration, and we think it has the potential to
bring all four together to make a dent in this kind of
wage-justice problem.
So what's next for this program?
This is -- this is our hopes for the next phase for this program.
And I urge the secretary of Labor and the Access to Justice
program to work with us and others to help make this hit
the ground running and really have an institutionalized,
long-term impact.
The first thing is to monitor this program and see what
happens, track the impacts.
We'll help publicize it.
We should report on it and get the word out that this
program is around.
We want to continue to reach out to the stakeholder experts,
like the workers centers and the unions,
and get the pipeline going, get more workers coming in.
The better the job that the Department of Labor does --
and it is doing an incredible job just these last two years --
the more workers are going to come to the Department of Labor,
which means more people are going to need help,
and we need more collaborations like this one.
So we hope that the states will replicate it and more
bar associations will sign up and sign on.
Finally, we should use this strategically to
divide and conquer.
The Department of Labor is good at being strategic and targeted,
and the private bar is good at being dogged and consistent.
And we'll leverage its strength with the Department of Labor's
strategic strength, and we can really have a powerful impact.
Yesterday in New York City, Patricia Smith,
the solicitor of Labor, told a group,
talking about independent contractors,
that it's hard to change a culture -- a culture of
lawlessness, a culture where violations prevail.
I think this program will help to change the culture and to
stop the persistent violations of wage theft and bring us
onward, where we can have a real enforcement force
in our country.
And we really thank Professor Tribe and Secretary Solis and
the ABA for your leadership on this.
Thank you.
Mr. Tribe: There's really about three minutes or so that we can take
for brief questions from the audience while the panel still
is here and before the next panel comes up.
So if you have a question, there's roving mike,
I understand.
Just identify yourself and please make it a brief question,
if you can.
Mr. Terry: How will these --
Mr. Tribe: Please identify yourself at the outset.
Mr. Terry: Yeah. Michael Terry, president of the Atlanta Bar.
How will these lawyer referral services relate to the ABA
approved lawyer referral services that many of us
already have up and running?
Is this going to be a different service,
or will it be appended to what we already have?
Mr. Robinson: My understanding is that we're going to take advantage of and
rely upon the lawyer referral networks that
we already have in place.
And I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment here and
recognize that within the American Bar Association,
in addition to partnership between our 27 different
sections, we also need leadership to make something
like this a reality, and I want to recognize the Labor
and Employment Law Section of the American Bar Association,
which played such strong leadership role in helping
to make this happen.
But they, working with the Department of Labor,
primarily on the point for us, will be interrelating with our
lawyer referral services across the country to make sure that
for each client in search of a lawyer,
there will be a lawyer ready to provide -- how did the vice
president put it?
-- what that client needs to know and how to use the "know."
So we're ready.
We thank you for this opportunity and thank
you for the question.
Mr. Tribe: Another question? Okay.
It's my pleasure to thank Secretary Solis and the panel,
and now invite the veterans panel to come up.
Thank you all.
Mr. Tribe: Well, we're going to turn next to the part of our program that
focuses on increasing access to justice for our veterans and
their families.
It's obviously fitting, that this announcement comes so soon
after Veteran's Day.
A day that we pause to honor the brave women and men who serve
our country and ensure our liberties throughout the history
of this nation but especially over the past decade.
That service has required enormous sacrifice for too many
veterans, both those that have fought in most recent times and
those who have served in decades past.
The transition to civilian life often includes almost
insurmountable challenges: complex legal issues,
problems of family law, custody disputes, employment disputes,
credit fare lending matters, domestic violence matters,
as well as securing needed benefits for
themselves and families.
these are issues that are of vital importance to our veterans
and the Department of Veterans Affairs works hard to address
every day through their community based vet centers
which provide readjustment counseling services to veterans
and their families.
With us today to tell us more about what steps are being taken
to address these legal needs as part of our burgeoning efforts
is the general counsel of the Department of Veterans Affairs,
Will Gunn, and the Chairman of the LSC Board, John Levi.
Joining them is David Jemmett(sic), a veteran who struggled for years
to get the social security benefits to
which he was entitled.
A struggle that ended quite successfully with the help of
an advocate from the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia;
an LSC grantee.
David and his family know what a difference the help of an
advocate can make.
I'd also like to recognize in our audience today
representatives from the VA readjustment counseling services
and the LSC grantees who are our real boots on the ground who've
already offering those crucial services.
David, I'm looking forward to hearing your story and I thank
you for your service.
Mr. Jemmett: Thank you.
Thank you.
It is truly a pleasure to be with you today and I want to
thank you for the opportunity to tell my story.
I joined the army in 1975 and after completing a tour of state
side as an advanced individual training instructor I was
assigned to Germany.
I was teaching a soldier how to drive a self propelled howitzer
when he suddenly down shifted throwing me off the vehicle.
I landed flat on my back and realized that I had no feeling
from the waste down and could not move.
Fortunately, my paralysis was only temporary.
I recovered after a hospital stay and was able to continue to serve.
After being discharged, I went to work as a correctional
officer and served in a New York state prison system for
about 15 years.
Back pain was something that I had learned to live with,
but my condition became progressively worse.
Apparently, I had a bulging disc and was later diagnosed
of having a degenerative disc disease caused by an injury
to the back.
I started having trouble walking and standing and was afraid I
might be paralyzed.
After leaving the stresses of my law enforcement career which
accelerated my condition, I moved to Virginia to
be near family.
It was there that I first sought help from the VA.
The VA took care of me.
I saw several doctors, including active duty
military duty doctors.
I was given prescription drugs and given physical therapy.
The VA determined I was 100% disabled.
My VA counselor recommended that I apply for social security
disability insurance benefits.
I first tried to apply by myself but without any luck my repeated
request went no where.
Then the VA suggested that I seek help from legal services
and I got in touch with the Norfolk legal aid office,
answered questions during intake, and got a call within a week or
so asking me to come in.
Linda Jones Bailey legal services became
my guardian angel.
She reviewed my files.
She put my documents in order.
She got into the details.
I didn't know her from Adam, but she knew the law, and the next
thing I knew the social security administrative law judge had
ruled in my favor.
If it wasn't for legal services, I would be here as a veteran
struggling to make ends meet and without hope for the future.
Because of the VA and legal services,
my wife and I have been able to adopt two children,
ages four and six, and get them out of foster care.
The benefits provided to me made the adoption possible.
My wife has been able to go back to school and is
now studying for her CPA.
I feel that I have served my country well while in
the military.
I now want to do what I can to help troubled young people get
their lives in order.
The VA and legal services have given me my future.
Thank you.